Monday, November 10, 2014

The Demonology of St. John of the Ladder (1 of 6) - The Evil Spirits

By John Chryssavgis

1. The Evil Spirits

The importance of the demonological theme in John's spirituality can be gauged from the account of his anthropology. At times, demons seem to dominate the stage, although he never succumbed to any obsession with demonology of the kind which characterized second and third century Gnosticism and which was responsible for the erection of a vast and complex system of demonic hierarchies. Still, John reflects an intense experience of demonic influence, which brings about splits and conflicts within man and impels him to struggle against its divisive claims. To split, to divert, to shift, to disrupt is its essential procedure; but the struggle is basically within man. Indeed, in the East it is accepted that demons approach us in the form corresponding to our own inward state. Satan says to Saint Anthony: "It is not I who trouble them [the monks], it is they who trouble themselves."1 Thus demonology does in some measure signify, though it is not reducible to, psychology. Nonetheless, John's demonological language is at times highly objectified, pointing, as will be seen, to real agents rather than imaginary shadows.

Demons are spirits (πνεύματα)2 or noetic beings (νοεροὶ)3 which are evil (πονηροὶ)4 and whose main function is to darken man's nous.5 Being spirits, they are more difficult to deal with than human persons.6 They hate the good (ο μισόκαλος)7 and it is they and man's consent to them, not man himself, who are the cause of evil. They sow the seed of sin within man (υποβάλλουσι)8 and "force us to sin"9 but they cannot predict the consequences of their sowing; they cannot know the future10 or our innermost thoughts - except, as the Makarian Homilies imply, by virtue of the fact that they have been with us for so long.11 But God knows (ἐπιστάται) that they cause sinful thoughts and that, at times, they act even without man's consent.12 Their main characteristic, as will be seen below, is judging, discriminating against others13 - etymologically, diavallein means to slander, to throw over, to separate, to divide; in fact, people become "diabolic" by acting in this fashion.14 It seems that man, too, can become demonized and thus act against himself as well as others.15

Before examining some of the ways in which demons tempt man, one must note that such expressions as "demon of despondency"16 and "demon of fornication"17 indicate the aim of the demonic assaults rather than a distinction between the spirits as such. It is only in this sense that each demon can be said to have his particular function to fulfill as if in a war.18


1. Athanasius, Life of Anthony 41 (PG 26.904AB) and 42 (905A), John himself makes this point the Ladder 22.25 and 26.15.

2. Ladder 3.40

3. Ibid. 15.25

4. Ibid. 7.71

5. Ibid. 26.7

6. Ibid. 21.14

7. Ibid. 4.99

8. Ibid. 10.5

9. Ibid. 10.13

10. Ibid. 3.41

11. Mac. Hom. 26, 9.

12. Ibid. 23.4

13. Ibid. 4.16

14. Ibid. 8.20

15. Ibid. 27.13

16. Ibid. 13.5

17. Ibid. 15.20. In Evagrius, "demons" are interchangeable with "passions".

18. Ibid. 15.25